Gender Equality in International Trade

By Sóley Aspelund

Gender equality is a fundamental human right. It refers to equal rights and access to opportunities and responsibilities. From an economic point of view, gender equality and, thus, female participation in economics is vital as it can increase states’ financial capacity, leading to greater economic diversification and innovation. Still, today, women only generate 37% of the world’s GDP, and if the world lived up to its full potential, it would be closer to 50%. This disproportionate figure sheds light on the pressing global challenge of gender equality, which has led to the active participation of international organisations in the field. 

International organisations such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Trade Centre (ITC) have focused on implementing gender equality policies in international trade. But trade has shown to be an essential tool to drive economic growth and support female empowerment in economics, thus advancing gender equality further. 

The executive director of ITC, Arancha González, observed the challenge of gender equality in international trade among World Trade Organization (WTO) members and decided to bring it to the international fora by forming a working group on trade and gender under the International Gender Champions (IGC), Geneva. IGC is a leadership network that connects female and male decision-makers committed to breaking down gender barriers and transforming gender equality into a working reality in their areas of influence and responsibility.

The establishment of the WTO’s working group on trade and gender was on the 23rd of September 2020, but the process was long and somewhat complicated due to the topic’s sensitivity. The initial chair of the working group was made of two small states, Iceland and Sierre Leon, and ITC representative González. The representation of small states was beneficial in establishing the group as their soft power allowed them to introduce this topic gently. But soft power refers to the ability to influence actors, not through coercion but by attraction. 

Despite having soft power characteristics, the working group received an adverse reaction from certain WTO members, making them hesitant in negotiations on these issues. The working group was, for example, accused of pinkwashing, which refers to the act of promoting one’s agendas through the support of marginalised sexual identities. 

As a result, the group decided against the idea of new trade and gender negotiations. Instead, they proposed a joint declaration that all WTO members and observers could sign. The resolution seeks to gather information to understand better why women participate in international trade at a lower rate than men and identify the barriers. Initially, only a few states backed the declaration. However, the momentum increased at the WTO ministerial conference in Buenos Aires on the 23rd of September 2020, when 121 countries and observers endorsed the declaration, with the new chair of Iceland, Botswana, and ITC representative González.

As demonstrated in the example illustrated above, gender equality is becoming a focal point in domestic and international public discourse. The discourse is moving beyond issues regarding public policy-making on a domestic level towards an inclusive global systematic change. As illustrated above, organisations are moving towards implementing policies on gender equality, which is an essential leap towards societies acting towards their full potential, or, as this article explores, full economic potential. 

Although identifying barriers is a crucial first step, acting to eliminate these barriers is even more critical for the global economy and gender equality worldwide. That is why it is essential to remain innovative in improving and coming up with new solutions, especially ones with gender in mind. We can see this promising continuation in innovation from the WTO, but they established the new World Trade Congress on Gender that took place for the first time in 2022. The objective of the Congress is to provide a platform for experts on trade and gender to share their research, which directly supports the innovative thinking of members of the WTO and non-members. 

There is a dire need for gender sensitivity in policy-making, as illustrated by current gender inequality in international trade. That is because gender plays a role that is not always recognised or given its deserved attention. Thus it is important to shed light on how to implement gender in innovation. As well as supporting female empowerment to globally work in full potential in the field of international trade. 

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